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This week, Erica and Kenrya talk to author, artist and educator Benji Hart about the malleability of gender; the need for expansive, affirmative language around gender identity; art as healing and sustaining practice; collaboration as a pathway to Black liberation; the origins of voguing as a queer Black art form and the ingeniousness of our ancestors.
Guest, Benji Hart | Website | Instagram | Twitter
Books films and people mentioned in this episode:
Kenrya: Come here. Get, off.
Kenrya: Hey good people. Today, we're talking to Benji Hart, pronouns they and them. Benji is a Chicago-based author, artist and educator whose work centers Black radicalism, queer liberation, and prison abolition. Their essays and poems have appeared in numerous anthologies, and their commentary has been published at Teen Vogue, Time Magazine, the Advocate and lots of others. They've led workshops for organizations and at academic institutions internationally and facilitated convenings for groups like Law for Black Lives, National Bailout, and The Centers. Their performances have been featured at CA2M in Madrid, Museo Del Chopo in Mexico City, Brick in Brooklyn, and elsewhere. They've been a fellow at the Rauschenberg Foundation and McDowell, and they are a Three Arts awardee in the teaching arts. Hey Benji.
Benji Hart: Hey, y'all. Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited to be here.
Kenrya: Thank you for saying yes, because you could have said no.
Erica: Yeah, thank you. Yeah.
Benji Hart: Anytime. Thank you so much for inviting me, genuinely.
Erica: You are so welcome. So what did little Benji want to be when they grew up?
Benji Hart: It's such a cute, funny question. To be relevant to our convo as well as to... Yeah. It just all ties in. It just all ties in. One of my parents' favorite stories about me is that, I think it was on an airplane, a stranger on an airplane asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I was probably like five or six. And I responded that I wanted to be a she wombat.
Kenrya: Why a wombat?
Benji Hart: Why a wombat? I think I thought a wombat was a type of bat, which it's not.
Kenrya: Oh. It's not.
Benji Hart: It is definitely not. But little Benji thought it was a bat. But also Lil Benji, before Benji had a lot of the language, did have a very expansive understanding of gender, did believe that gender could change, did believe that what gender you were in the moment did not necessarily need to define what gender you were going to be in the next moment. And I definitely, even when I was little and I envisioned myself as an adult, I often envisioned myself as different genders.
Benji Hart: Sometimes I envisioned myself as a man, sometimes I envision myself as a woman. sometimes I envision myself as gender nonconforming, but when I thought about myself growing up, I didn't always picture the same gendered person in my vision.
Benji Hart: And when I was little, I didn't really think about that actually. And it wasn't until I was much older that I started to think about my own gender and also my own evolution, and what did I want to evolve into? And I think that has very much to do with identifying outside of the binary now. I really love, Alok Vaid-Menon talks about the uselessness of the term nonbinary and how they actually don't like the term nonbinary because it's about what you're not instead about what you are and that we need terms for what we are and what our genders affirmatively are, rather than all the things that they're not. And I really love that because I feel like I actually don't have that terminology in this moment. Nonbinary is kind of the best thing that we have, but I'm like actually really not into that.
Benji Hart: Let's be real. It's not a cute word. It don't sound cute. So I'm really on the search for, as a Black femme outside of the binary person, what is my gender? But I also think there's power to not knowing or not having a term or not needing a term, and just existing without necessarily needing a name, I think is also something powerful that trans people, that queer people, do all the time. So I'm kind of with that at the same time.
Kenrya: No, that's real shit. I mean, it brings to mind... I do a lot of workshops to basically telling folks when they're racist, right? And how to be less racist. And so much at the basic level is about language and the use of words that center whiteness to describe all the rest of us, right? The non-white, the minority, where you center the dominant culture and place the rest of us on the outside. And this feels exactly that, and you're a hundred percent right. Why are we fucking centering the binary? Love that.
Benji Hart: Yes. Exactly. Exactly.
Kenrya: We need that more expansive language.
Benji Hart: Yeah. And I really... Oh, I'm sorry.
Erica: Keep going.
Benji Hart: I was just going to say, I'm not an Indigenous person, indigenous to this continent, I should say, so I don't use the term two spirit, but I love that type of identity. A, one rooted in a cultural, spiritual, de-colonial history, but B, also one that's like, "This is who I am," not, "This is all the things that I'm not." I think Black folks in diaspora need our own term like that, that's like, "This is our Black ass gender. This is what it is affirmatively," rather than, right. "These are all the white supremacist colonial structures that it's not."
Kenrya: Yes, absolutely.
Erica: Okay, Benji. So that story was just so cute and it makes me wonder, and if this is too personal, then be like, "Bitch, kill it." But how did your parents help you foster this openness and this openness around gender?
Benji Hart: I think my mom was a big part of it. And actually, when I was in conversation with adrienne on How To Survive The End Of The World last week, we started getting into this a little bit too. I think like my dad, who is my Black parent, fostered some very strong roots for me around race and racial identity. And my mom, who is my white parent, I think fostered a lot of feminist roots for me. And I think my mom in particular, who I was very close with when I was little, was very protective of me, not in a sheltering way, but in a, "You need to be allowed to be your fullest self and you need to be allowed to figure out who you are without other people interjecting." And I think my mom was very protective of my feminisim as a young person, which again, was not terminology that I had. And was very protective of my softness and my sensitiveness, which in other parts of my life like school and other places were definitely things I was picked on for, definitely things I was an outcast for.
Benji Hart: My mom was very intentional about making sure I didn't reject those things, even though other parts of my life and other parts of the world were very much, from a very early age, encouraging me, pressuring me, forcing me to reject those things. I think my mom played a really large role in telling me that who I was was not just acceptable, but important and powerful and beautiful. And I just think so often about... Especially I think around 13, 14, middle school, that's when I was trying my hardest to fit in and trying my hardest to really break those things that, whatever I was doing, that people were calling me gay. I was trying to stop doing that thing. Whatever thing I was doing that people was like, "Why do you do that like a girl? Why do you talk like a girl? Why you act like a girl?"
Benji Hart: I was trying to stop doing all of those things, just so that the bullying would stop and the shit talking would stop. And I just failed miserably. I was not fooling anybody. And it was such a painful time trying so hard to fit in and failing so badly, trying so hard to be a man and masculine, trying so hard to be straight, trying so hard to do the things that boys were supposed to be doing at that time, and being so bad at it and being so awkward at it. And now that I'm grown, it feels like such a blessing that I failed. It's like, "Oh my God, thank God." I was trying so hard to kill those things, and they would not let me, and I am so grateful to whoever was watching over me and was like, "No honey, you're not going to kill that. No, you need that. You need to protect that. You need to actually nurture that and support that and carry it with you to the next stage."
Benji Hart: And so many of the boys and men in my life were successful. So many of the boys and men in my life were successful at killing off those things, were successful at severing their connection to their sensitivity, to their femininity, to the wisdom that I think men and boys are taught to reject and to sacrifice. And now that I'm grown, I'm like, "Oh my God, thank you that I don't have to rebuild my connection to these things." Because so many of the people in my life are having to dig up the roots that they buried and rebuild the connection that they severed. And if I could go back and tell 13 year old Benji, I'd be like, "Girl, I know this isn't working right now out, but you're going to be grateful." It's going to work out later.
Erica: It's going to all pan out.
Benji Hart: It's going to work out later. Just ride out middle school. It's going work out.
Erica: Jesus gonna work it out. Jesus gonna work it out. I love your mama. I love the fact that she felt that she needed to protect that. And as a parent, I remember my son, second grade, his teacher called me and was like, "Look." She said, "Not only does he talk a lot," she was like, "But he's a lot of person." And I was like, "Bitch, look at the house he grew up in." Right? And I was telling her like, "Yes, it's a problem in second grade. He's disrupting, but I don't want to kill that in him because that is going to be what buys me an island. And I'm going to be laid up on somebody's island, because of it." And so I think that's so beautiful that your mama was like, "Let's protect my baby. Let's make sure we don't kill who they are." So I love it.
Benji Hart: That's right. That's right.
Kenrya: We've actually had guests talk quite a bit about the idea of a second adolescence that so many queer folks go through where they're coming into who they are, because so often they were not able to do that in that time. And the way that you just described that, of the folks in your life who have had to rediscover and reconnect to that part of themselves that they have killed, it's probably the most moving way I've ever heard that explained. Yeah. That really resonated.
Benji Hart: Thank you. Thank you. I definitely feel like I'm drawing on the wisdom and the observations of lots of queer and trans folks. I don't think I'm the first person to make that observation, but definitely as someone who was socialized as a boy and no longer identifies as a boy, just seeing so many of the boys and men who are socialized next to me, socialized around me, the work that they're having to do, the healing work that they're having to do in their adult lives is very, very different from the healing work that I'm having to do. Lord knows I'm doing a lot of healing work.
Kenrya: Aren't we all? Lord have mercy.
Benji Hart: Lord knows I have a lot of work to do. I have a lot of work that I have done, but it just looks so different. And folks trying to rebuild their sensitivity, rebuild their relationship to femininity. It's like, "Yeah, we here. We here." That's not something I need to rebuild.
Erica: That part I'm good on. Let's work on this other stuff.
Benji Hart: Exactly.
Erica: Okay. So how did you come into your activist self?
Benji Hart: I often don't use terms activists or organizer because I think they create sort of a special identity around work that I think we should actually all be doing. And that actually most of us do, but don't get called activists or organizers for doing, especially when we're talking about oppressed and marginalized people. So for me, I see myself as a Black person fighting for my liberation and the liberation of the people that I love and care about. And for me, that's a necessity. For me, that's like, if you are Black and you want to live, this is a fight you have to fight. If you are Black and you love other Black people, which not all Black people do.
Kenrya: That part.
Benji Hart: If you are Black and you love other Black people-
Kenrya: And all Black people.
Benji Hart: This is what required of you and all Black people.
Kenrya: All Black people. Yup.
Benji Hart: Whatever gender they are, whatever language they speak, whatever part of the world they come from, live in. If you love Black people, this is what the moment demands of us collectively. And so even, for things like abolition, police and prison abolition, which is so core to my values and my worldview, that for me is less of a... I wouldn't even call that a political stance. I would call that, if Black people are going to live their fullest lives, which includes me, if I'm going to live my fullest life, these systems have to go. If my nibbling is going to be safe, if my nibbling is going to come up and not have to fear for his life constantly, these systems have to go right now. And it's urgent for me because I want to survive, and it's urgent for me because I want the people I love and care about to survive. And for me it's really quite that simple.
Benji Hart: And so certainly I incorporate those beliefs and those values into the work that I do. And that's one of the vehicles that I see for pushing forward Black liberation, not just as a demand, but as a vision. But I think it's a requirement of myself and of all people who love Black people and who love justice. And I think so much of the work that Black communities are doing just to sustain themselves and just to survive is organizing. And that's part of the reason why I don't like feeling like that's a term that's only applied to me or to people who are doing work similar to the work that I'm doing or in the capacity that I am doing it in. Because if you are getting your community together to push back and resist these systems and these structures collectively, not just as a constellation of individuals, but as a collective that is organizing, and Black people are doing that all the time. Black people in the hood are that all the time. Black people, Black families, Black parents, Black mothers, are doing that work all the time.
Kenrya: Yeah. So often we talk to folks and they develop themselves along a career path and then they realize that they can marry the, "I'm Black, and I am pushing for all of our liberation," side of themselves with the career part of themselves. Do you know what I'm saying? At what point did you come to realize that your art could be your vehicle for moving us closer to liberation?
Benji Hart: It's a great question, A, because I hope that my art can do that. Sometimes I feel like it's doing that and sometimes I don't. So I hope that it can, I hope that it can be a contribution. But the other reason I think it's a great question is because there is a real tension between: What do we do professionally? What do we do as part of a career? What do we do for money? Which we have not abolished capitalism yet, so we need to ask that question sadly. But what do we do to sustain ourselves to survive? And what do we do to help achieve our liberation? Because often those things don't go together. And I think so much of the crisis of this moment for folks who are trying their best to do this work, is: How do you do it sustainably, but in ways that are actually threatening and actually dangerous to the systems and structures that are harming us?
Benji Hart: And the reality being the systems and structures are not going to pay you to undo them. The systems and structures are not going to give you no stipend, are not going give you no salary to destroy them. And so I am always doing that balancing act as we all are. But I also think it's real not just to acknowledge the contradictions, but to actually ask ourselves: What are we doing for Black liberation? Because it may not be, in reality, what we're doing for a paycheck. It may not, in reality, be what we're doing to sustain ourselves, because sustaining ourselves often involves participating in the systems that we know are harming us and are harming other Black people. So I try, of course, to sustain myself as well as make what I hope are meaningful contributions to Black liberation, which is to say meaningful contributions to the destruction of white supremacist systems and structures.
Benji Hart: But I also often find that there needs to be some distinction between what I do to sustain myself and what I do for Black liberation. So, making my art is, frankly, an incredibly healing thing for me. It's a space that I go to process my own feelings, to expand my own vision for what Black futures might look like. There's lots that I take from it personally that makes it an important part of, frankly, sustaining my practice. And I certainly hope that when I share my art that it's helping do that for other people. That's definitely a hope of mine whenever I share something, is that especially other Black people are being touched and are having their own vision expanded, and are having the parts of themselves tapped into that I'm trying to tap into when I make a piece.
Benji Hart: And at the same time, I don't think any art that I make alleviates takes any of the need away for me to be in the street. Me being in the street, me shutting shit down, me going to meetings and me being a part of collective spaces where Black people are figuring out: How do we push back against these systems? Is just as important. So I think it's not that one is more important than the other, or one matters more than the other, but neither can one replace the other. I think our contributions as artists are so important and they need to go along with being at the meeting and talking logistics and showing up to the demonstration and being in the street and potentially getting arrested. All of those contributions are necessary.
Benji Hart: And we don't all have to make the same contributions. That's also something I believe. We're not all required to show up in the same way, but we also all need to ask ourselves, "How are we showing up?" And I think how we show up in collectives is a really important question to ask. Because a lot of us ask how we show up as individuals. What am I as an individual doing to help push this conversation, to help raise awareness about this issue? And those aren't bad for questions to ask, but as Mariame Kaba would say, "Everything worthwhile is done in a collective." Everything worthwhile is done together. So what are we doing collectively? And how am I contributing to the collective? I think is a crucial question to ask, that capitalism encourages us not to ask, that white supremacist systems and structures encourage us not to ask. We're encouraged to think of everything as about individual contributions. And I think my individual contributions are my least meaningful contributions. I think what I contribute to the collective are the contributions that I'm the most proud of.
Kenrya: Thank you.
Erica: All right. So Benji tell us about Dancer as Insurgent.
Benji Hart: Dancer as Insurgent is my first solo performance that I wrote, which I actually wrote as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University. So it was essentially my senior thesis for African American studies. And so it's approximately 20 to 25 minute performance.
Benji Hart: Looking at sort of the history of vogue. And for me sort of trying to reframe vogue as a radical Black art form, Black queer art form, and situating myself as a voguer within that lineage. And so it's a mix of poetry and spoken word, no musical accompaniment, just me speaking and me dancing, and sort of situating vogue in this radical history and situating myself in a lineage of trans and Black people struggling for our liberation.
Kenrya: Right. And you've been voguing since you were 16, right?
Benji Hart: That's correct. I came out when I was 14 years old, and I started voguing when I was 16. I joined my first house when I was 18 and I won my first ball when I was 20.
Erica: Hey. Hey, how did you... I'm just all off these damn questions. I apologize, because you wrote really great questions. How did you get into voguing? I know they didn't like come to your school and recruit kids.
Benji Hart: This is correct.
Erica: So how did that happen?
Benji Hart: I grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is a suburban college town in Western Massachusetts, mixed race, mixed class, but still predominantly white. And so when I came out, I was one of, if not the only one of, I'll say, very, very, very few out queer kids of color in my high school, one of very few out queer kids period, which meant the pool of queer kids of color was wicked small.
Erica: Small to begin with, yeah.
Benji Hart: Exactly. So at the beginning, at that point, 14, ninth grade, I really didn't have an identity. I knew that, again using the language that I had at the time, that I was a boy who was attracted to other boys, but I wasn't even using the term gay at the time because the only images of gayness that I had were white images, and just culturally, I was like, "Well, I don't do any of these things that gay people on TV or gay people in the few media sources that I have do, so that must not be my identity." And it wasn't until I sort of began an active search for: What does it mean to be Black and queer? Then I was actually introduced to Marlon Riggs. And “Tongues Untied” is a famous sort of art film that Marlon Riggs made exploring primarily Black gay men's identity, though not exclusively.
Benji Hart: And there's an incredible moment in “Tongues Untied” where Essex Hemphill is reading a poem. Essex Hemphill, a Black HIV-positive queer poet is reading this incredible poem. And it's just a showing folks dancing on street corner in New York. And Willi Ninja is one of the voguers. There's just like a bunch of incredible people voguing. And this was really my first time seeing real voguing. And just something inside of me just exploded. I just knew I wanted to do that. And so I started digging and researching. I watched “Paris Is Burning” shortly thereafter. I watched, “How Do I Look” shortly thereafter.
Benji Hart: I was just finding whatever material about vogue I could, and I just started practicing on my own. And then it was the summer that I turned 18 that actually a dance mentor who knew Willi Ninja brought me to New York, which is only about four-ish hours away from Western Mass. And I ended up joining the House of Ninja that summer, which was just a wild summer slash my wildest little 18-year-old baby queer dreams coming true. But that was sort of when I started actually participating in the ballroom scene first in New York. And then I moved to Chicago when I was 22, 23. So then I kind of transferred over to the Chicago scene around the time that I was 23.
Erica: Okay. All right. So now let's talk about World After This One.
Benji Hart: So World After This One is still kind of an in progress piece for me. I think it's getting close to being done, knock on wood. I just did it in progress showing last week actually at the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Chicago and got some really important and positive feedback. So that was an exciting moment for me. But World After This One is this piece that's been in the works for where almost four years now. I've been sort of working on it on and off. And World After This One sort of continues from where Dancers Insurgent left off in a lot of ways. It's another solo performance that only relies on spoken word and movement. And so sort of very minimalist, bare bones aesthetic, but that is looking at voguing, bomba, which is Afro Puerto Rican dance and drumming music, and gospel music, and looking at sort of the lineages and linkages between those three art forms.
Benji Hart: So again, I would say kind of situating all three of those art forms in a radical history of Black and queer resistance. But I think also in a different way from Dancer As Insurgent, delving into the gray area and looking at the complicated ways that Black people use the tools, use the materials of empire, of colonization, of white supremacy even in some ways, to construct and imagine Black liberation. And for me, it's kind of a complication of the Audre Lorde adage that the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. For me, this piece is kind of looking at how have Black people actually always been using the master's tools in these complicated and subversive ways, and in ways that are not making a moral judgment about the materials, are not saying "This is radical, or it's not," "This is colonial, or this is not." But it's just saying, "This is here. This is what's available, and this is what I have to use, and I'm going to imagine my liberation with it, regardless of what it is or how it came to me."
Benji Hart: And just both the ingeniousness of our ancestors, and the ingeniousness of Black people and being able to transform anything into something that could potentially, not necessarily, but could potentially help imagine Black liberation, and just really forcing us to actually ask, "What even are the master's tools? And who even says the master gets to claim this? Who even says the master gets to say this is theirs. Where is that written? Why can't this be my tool? Why can't this be something that I subvert and that I break and reshape and form into something that actually helps me get free?"
Kenrya: Oh, I love your brain. So this really resonated with me. I do a lot of work around encouraging people to freedom dream, right? Thinking about: What does that liberated future look like? And so that brings me to ask you, right? If you close your eyes and you're able to move beyond the state that we are in, what does that liberated future look like to you? And I know that's a huge question. You can pick a small corner of it.
Benji Hart: This week, I think I will say that a liberated future is one where Black liberation is not solely Black people's responsibility, and that I think abolition is not a destination. I think Black liberation is not a destination. It is an ongoing commitment and struggle. But I dream of a future where we are not the only ones engaged in that struggle. I dream of a future where Black people being loved and protected and thriving and safe and happy and joyous and healthy is not solely Black people's business. Because I'm so tired of it being our job to liberate ourselves, which really means liberate everybody. I'm frankly really tired of it being Black people's job to liberate everybody. We need support. We need help. We need solidarity. And I dream of a world where that isn't such a radical ask.
Benji Hart: And Lord knows I dream of a world where Black young people have access to everything that they need. I dream of a world where Black communities are fully resourced, whatever that looks like for each individual community. I dream of a world without police, prisons, or a military. I dream of world without borders. And I think all of those things are Black liberation, and all of those are things that Black people are fighting for in different parts of the world, in different parts of the diaspora, and I dream of a world where that's not our fight to alone.
Kenrya: Especially since we didn't create this bullshit.
Benji Hart: Especially since it's literally none of our responsibility. We are not responsible for any of the mess. So the fact that we are, in many regards, the primary, and even in some cases, the only ones, fighting.
Kenrya: It's exhausting.
Benji Hart: And you know as a half white person, this is a sensitive subject.
Kenrya: That's real shit. And that was beautiful. Thank you for sharing. Okay. So there's this book and it's called “And The Category Is: Inside New York's Vogue House And Ballroom Community.” And it drops in January 2022, which is actually when this episode is going to air, in January.
Benji Hart: Amazing.
Kenrya: Yes. So we'll link the book in the show notes so that y'all can cop. But in the meantime, can you give us a sneak peek of your essay for that anthology? Because you all up in there.
Benji Hart: The funny thing is it's actually a transcribed conversation that I had with Pony Zion, which was moderated by Ricky Tucker and Robert Sember. But it's really this amazing conversation I got to have with Pony Zion back in 2018, 2019, somewhere in there. It's a little hard to remember, but a while back pre-pandemic, pre-pandemic, no mask. And we just kind of all chopped it up, the four of us, but had this amazing conversation about who do you vogue for? Who consumes our art, who consumes our creation as voguers and as Black queer people? Do we have say in that? How do we decide if we do have say? Where does vogue come from and where do we see it going? And I got to talk a little bit about how vogue for me is deeply tied to police and prison abolition. We trace vogue's origins through oral histories back to Rikers Island Prison and oral historians in the ballroom community say that the original voguers were actually incarcerated at Rikers Island when they first created this category, which was originally called Pop Dip and Spin.
Benji Hart: And so again, understanding vogue not just as a trans and queer art form, but a Black trans and queer art form. And even more specifically than that, a Black trans and queer art form that was created by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people.
Benji Hart: That's created by street-based, houseless people, that's created by sex workers, that's created by trans women. And for me, none of those things, you can't vogue without giving reverence to all of those communities, to all of those people, and without demanding liberation for all of those people, which is for me so much of what is missing from people's participation in vogue. And we talked a lot about appropriation and sort of how we conceptualize participation in vogue and in ballroom as that culture continues to spread globally and evolve globally. That for me, it's not about who can and can't participate.
Benji Hart: It's not about, you have to be this or you're not allowed, you have to be this or you can't come. For me, it's evolved past that to: You need to understand the lineage that this comes out of and you need to ask yourself what you're doing for the folks in those lineages, because sex workers are still facing violence, because trans people are still facing violence, because our people are still getting locked up and our people are still getting killed by the police. And that's not just Black men, that's Black women, that's Black trans people, that's Black gender nonconforming people, that's everybody. And if you are not fighting for those communities, then you actually don't understand what vogue is. You actually don't understand the conditions under which vogue was created. And that's always going to limit your ability to participate, and that's always going to limit your ability to actually fully immerse yourself in the form. And if you're serious about the form, then you need to be serious about fighting for the people who created it.
Kenrya: Right. I mean, that actually extends to another question that we were going to ask. We've talked a bit about white supremacy and you were just talking about how part of that conversation touched on who is consuming voguing. Can we talk about the ways that white supremacy shows up in that space?
Benji Hart: Oh, it's a big question. Kind of hearkening back to this piece that I've been working on, World After This One, I think vogue is a great example of a Black art form, the ballroom is a great example of a Black space and a Black community that is complicated. That, yes, was created by Black trans and queer people for Black trans and queer people, and also has a long history of gender policing, a long history of celebrating gender conforming trans people and shaming trans people that don't conform, a long history of celebrating thin bodies, a long history of celebrating light skinned folks. Like any Black space, we bring our baggage and our trauma into it and it shows up in complicated ways. So for me, it's actually important to celebrate the radical history of the ballroom scene, and to also talk about: It's a complicated place, and it's not always a welcoming place, and it's not always an affirming place, and not everyone has had that experience in ballroom.
Benji Hart: And that's actually okay because that's part of the history. That's part of understanding the complexity of the form and the people who made it. So I think just the ways that we as Black people perpetuate white supremacy is something to be real about, and something that shows up in ballroom all the time. But then certainly as the form has gone global, even somewhat recently in the last 10 years, there's scenes pretty much on every continent, which is beautiful. And some of those scenes are unrecognizable. I've seen some balls in Europe. I've seen some balls in Latin America, participated in some balls in different parts outside of the US.
Benji Hart: And it's both really amazing to see the ways that people are taking it and making it their own, and also really heartbreaking and disturbing and in some cases, infuriating to see the ways that Blackness and Black people specifically are erased, and that people continuously... What's the word? Conceive of ballroom as a trans and queer art form and never say the word Black. And explain and justify their own participation as, "This is a trans and queer art form and I'm a trans and queer person," without asking, "What does it mean for me as a white trans or queer person to be participating in this Black art form? What does it mean for me as a brown trans or queer person to be participating in this Black art form?"
Benji Hart: And again, not just, "Have I addressed my own anti-Blackness and my own racist thoughts and feelings about Black people before I step up into this Black tradition?" But, "What am I doing on behalf of Black people? How am I fighting and struggling alongside of, and on behalf of, Black people?" Is not a question I see very many people asking. And in fact, I've experienced people literally being upset when you assert that vogue and that ballroom is a Black art form. And so people's just complete resistance to even acknowledging that this is something that came from Black people, much less to then actually allow that to push them towards a Black liberatory lens, and a Black liberatory commitment, is very disheartening for me.
Benji Hart: And I got to tell people all the time, taking stuff from Black people and erasing Black people's contributions is not radical. You're not doing nothing radical and you're not doing nothing new if that's your way of participating and showing up in this art form. That's what y'all been doing since who knows how long. That's how y'all have been treating Black people for centuries, is consuming our art without giving us real love, respect, and appreciation. And if that's what you're doing in 2021, A, I feel sorry for you. B, somebody needs to remind you that there's nothing radical about that. There's nothing de-colonial about that. There's nothing visionary about that. There's no decolonization without Black people, and there's no liberation, there's no revolution for trans and queer people included without Black people.
Kenrya: Fucking tale as old as time.
Benji Hart: Old as time. Played out. You're not even giving me a new challenge. This is the same old, same old.
Erica: We asked you on the show because the story we read last week, “Masquerade,” follows the queer community during the Harlem Renaissance, and balls featured prominently. Now we know you're not a historian, but can you touch on briefly about the ties that bind ballroom scenes of the 1920s to today's ballroom culture?
Benji Hart: I really appreciate that set up, because I am not a ballroom historian. I'm certainly not a historian about the balls at the turn of the century. But for me, what I love about acknowledging that there were balls happening a hundred years ago, and history shows us and tells us actually much earlier than that, going back to the 1800s, going back to... We can even talk about out how some of these traditions literally grow out of enslavement, how some of these practices literally grow out of enslavement. I think it's such an important reminder that Black trans and queer people have always existed, and have always been, not just a part of the community, but actually at the forefront of creating Black art, Black culture, and even defining what it is to be Black, that Black trans and queer people are not a footnote or an asterisk. Black trans and queer people have actually always been at the forefront of defining and imagining what it is to be Black. And in fact, creating some of the most important and some of the most memorable and central cultural contributions that the entire Black community relies on.
Benji Hart: So yeah, the "faggot balls." That's what they were referred to in the local newspapers that we have documents of. The "faggot balls" of the twenties and thirties were these massive queer gatherings happening in Harlem at the height of the great migration, the height of the Harlem Renaissance, the height of Harlem as the Black Mecca for so many other parts of the country. So for me, that's just the most beautiful part about it. Black trans and queer people don't start existing in the nineties. Black trans and queer people don't start existing in the eighties. They don't start existing in the sixties. We have always, always, always been here, and the language has changed in the same ways that the language has changed for me over the course of my lifetime, over my exploration. Black trans and queer people in the 1800s, weren't referring to themselves as trans because academics hadn't invented that term yet, but were Black trans people doing their thing in the 1800s? Of course they were. Were Black trans people doing their thing under the conditions of chattel slavery? Of course they were.
Benji Hart: And there's so many stories of that in ways that, for me, is very affirming, and a reminder that, again, we're actually returning. We are placing ourselves inside of a long lineage, not diverging from it.
Erica: Yeah. So the characters in the book, they really relied on the community that was provided by ballroom to not only survive, but thrive. We'd love to talk about the ways that the ballroom culture currently provide this community for participants.
Benji Hart: I'm actually not participating in ballroom currently, which doesn't mean I'm not still connected to my people, and loving and supporting my people, specifically the members of the house that I was in for many years here in Chicago. But I'm not walking balls currently. So just to be transparent about that, that I'm not an active participant in the scene right now. I still think ballroom has always been a way for people to find family, and we all need family, even those of us who have support from our bio fam, or have support from family in the traditional sense. Having trans and queer family is so necessary. And I think the ballroom provides safety, it's a way of claiming space in spaces and communities where it's not always safe to be trans. It's not always safe to be femme. It's not always safe to be queer. It's a way of carving out space.
Benji Hart: And I would argue in like a very militant way, it's a way of carving out space and claiming space for Black trans and queer people. And I also think it provides safety just in terms of having people going through the same things as you, who can look out for you while you're doing difficult things, whether it's living on the street or doing sex work or all the kinds of things that have historically faced Black trans people, Black queer people, that it's a safety net of other people who know what you're going through, and that can provide material and physical support for you, as well as spiritual and cultural support, all of which are really crucial things.
Kenrya: Yeah. Word. So in the book that we read, the protagonist's name Celine, and she really uncovers her relationship to femme sexuality and gets comfortable with both her attraction and with her gender expression while she's attending the balls back during the Harlem Renaissance. Can we talk about how voguing empowers the feminine?
Benji Hart: I think, as we said, I started voguing when I was 16, and it was such a revolution for me in that moment, because I think one of the hardest things about coming out at as a 14-year-old in the place and the environment that I did was feeling like my Blackness and my queerness were diametrically opposed to one another, and that one couldn't exist with the other, that they were always going to be at odds. And often, in some ways to this day, feeling like sometimes you have to choose, "Am I going to be Black right now or am I going to be queer right now? "And for me, voguing was so revolutionary to, A, realized that Black queer people will have always existed. B, realize that Black queer people don't just exist. We have carved out these incredibly unique spaces for ourselves. We've imagined these incredibly unique cultural practices that don't look like anything else that anyone else has ever come up with, and that we've made these incredible cultural contributions that folks need to put some respect on our name.
Benji Hart: But that third, or C, I can't remember which one I'm on, that for me, Blackness and femmeness are deeply tied. They're not in contradiction with one another. My femmeness is so much a part of my Blackness, and my Blackness is so much a part of my femmeness, that it actually doesn't make sense. Queer folks who want you to separate your femmenes from your Blackness, and Black folks who want you to separate your Blackness from your queerness or your transness. It's like, "Well, then you don't understand what you're even talking about," because those things are inseparable. The more femme I feel the more Black I feel, and vice versa. The more I invest in my femmeness, the more I am investing in my Blackness. The more I celebrate my Blackness, the more I am necessarily celebrating my femmeness.
Benji Hart: Those two experiences are so aligned for me. And I think the way vogue makes that so material, and makes it manifest so physically on the floor that you can just see something that is so Black and so queer, and energy that is so Black and so femme coming out of someone's body. I just remember that feeling the first time I saw it of like, "Oh my gosh, you can be both." And they actually inform and reinforce and empower one another. They don't take away from each other.
Kenrya: Right. What's your superpower?
Benji Hart: What is my superpower? Dang. That's a really good question. I'm going to say that my superpower is using my words for liberation. I feel very strongly that words are sacred. And it's one of the reasons that, for me, one of the most treacherous things that someone can do is manipulate using words, or lie on you using words. Like when someone uses their words to manipulate me, it feels like such a desecration of such a sacred and powerful tool. That' the number one way for me to block you, the number one way for me to be like, "I do not fuck with this person. I will never talk to this person again." If I don't trust your words, I don't trust anything about you. I can't trust a single thing you say or do. And so for me, words are an incredibly sacred tool. And like any tool, they can be misused, they can be abused and they can do incredible damage.
Benji Hart: We know how incredibly harmful... Words are such a simple concept, but they can do so much harm. They can do so much damage. And in the same phrase, at the same time, they can do so much healing, so much clarifying, so much resonance, so much connection, they have the potential to do so many incredible, powerful things. And I think my superpower is treating words as sacred, always doing my best to not abuse them and not use them to obfuscate or confuse or manipulate, but using them to clarify and to connect and to break open the bullshit. That's my superpower.
Kenrya: Yes. I love it. Okay. What are you reading right now?
Benji Hart: I'm actually rereading “The Warmth Of Other Suns,” which was first recommended to me by a family member. And it's just one of my favorite books, and it deals with some very heavy subject matter, but it... I majored in Black studies, and the first time I read “The Warmth Of Other Suns,” I was like, "I can't believe I didn't know half of this shit." There's so much info in that book that it's so incredibly crucial to understanding what it means to be a Black person in the United States, that I was gagged at how much of it was new information to me when I read it. And I was probably like 27 or 28. So I go back and reread it periodically because it's so packed with such incredibly important history that I always find new things in it. But I also just love the way the author really makes you invested in the lives of these Black people from a century ago, coming up from the South and traveling north.
Benji Hart: And I just think it illuminates so much about what it means to be a Black person in this country in a way that feels very unique to the stories in that book, but also the way the author tells them. And yeah, I find so much inspiration from the lived experience of folks who went through the Great Migration. I think it's such a crucial juncture in Black history that gets so little attention. And I just want us thought to talk more about the Great Migration. So much of our understanding of Blackness in this country is rooted in enslavement. And Lord knows that's an important...
Benji Hart: It would be wrong to talk about being Black in this country without talking about slavery, but just all these other things, frankly, that Black people have been through, that slavery wasn't the first or the last violence that we faced in this country. But that also it wasn't the first or the last time that Black people resisted. It wasn't the first or the last time that Black people en mass imagined something better for themselves and against all odds were actually able to shape it and manifest it. And I just find so much inspiration in those stories.
Erica: Yeah. I was going to say, Isabel Wilkerson presents it all so beautifully. I listened to the audio book while I was on vacation and just loved it. Loved it, loved it. Okay. So what's turning you on today?
Benji Hart: It's a good question. I saw that question on the docket and I was like, "Oh, what is going to be my answer to that question?" Because I'm going to be real to say, that's not exactly the mind frame I'm in today, this week, this season, let me just be real. But let me get into it. Let me get into it, and give you a real response. I think what is turning me on today...
Benji Hart: I'm just going to give you my answer because if I think about it too hard, it's probably going to make even less sense, but I'm just going to try and say what's coming up. But I feel like I'm in a dry season, which is not just a dry season in terms of sex, though I think you could argue it is that. But also just romance prospects, sort of feeling sensual, feeling excited, feeling desirous, feeling both desired and desiring, I feel like I don't have a lot of that energy in my world right now. And so it's hard to tap into, "Yeah, what's turning you on today?" Because I feel like I'm having a hard time tapping into that energy in general in my life in this moment, which I think is okay. I think it's okay to acknowledge that we go through seasons.
Benji Hart: But I'm just in a season where I'm not feeling that energy intensely. But when you ask the question, I think what comes up for me is feeling turned on about being where I'm supposed to be. I actually feel really solid and grounded and rooted in that I'm where I need to be, and I'm doing what I need to do. And that, in this moment, isn't bringing desire and desirous-ness, and sensuality and sexuality into my immediate fear in that way. But for me, it's like a practice of rooting myself in myself and rooting myself in my sense of self, and knowing that the only type of desire that I want is desire for me as I am. And the type of desire that I deserve is the type of desire that I believe I'm calling to myself by the actions that I'm taking in this moment.
Benji Hart: So it's like planting seeds. It's like saying prayers. It's like putting out energy for what you know you deserve and what you know you're worth, and what you know is actually the only thing you can accept, that you can have nothing less than that, actually. I feel turned on by that. I feel turned on by like, "I'm where I'm supposed to be, and I know that what I deserve is coming towards me because I'm on my shit, and I'm doing what I am supposed to be doing." And the right energy and the right connections and the right feelings, even, will find me when the season changes.
Kenrya: That's powerful as hell. And it's a full moon. So you just manifested all of that.
Benji Hart: That's right. Thank you. Yes. And thank you for allowing me to manifest on this full moon. Sometimes we be forgetting. I'm like, "Oh yeah, I'm supposed to be manifesting right now." So thank you. Thank you for that.
Erica: Yeah. Check that off your list. Okay. So, sometimes we like to ask a few random questions.
Benji Hart: I love it.
Erica: Tell us a very mundane fact about you.
Benji Hart: A very mundane fact about me. I hate folding clothes.
Benji Hart: I fucking hate folding clothes. My laundry is done when the clothes come out of the dryer.
Erica: That's it. Yeah.
Benji Hart: That's it, the end of the chore for me. And I'm not proud of that. You know what I'm saying? That's not me being on my grown shit, but that's definitely me being on my honest shit. You know what I'm saying? I wash the clothes. The clothes are clean.
Erica: They're clean.
Benji Hart: They're dry. And that's all you going to get from me.
Erica: And now you just go through the basket.
Benji Hart: You know what I'm saying? Exactly.
Kenrya: We're laughing so hard because Erica literally just had to come up here and help me and fold clothes. So my disability limits my energy. And so I ain't always got it. But even before then, to be clear, them clothes piled up. But it's even worse now.
Benji Hart: That's so real.
Kenrya: So she came and sat and helped me fold.
Benji Hart: That's beautiful. That's actually really beautiful for so many reasons. My roommate be peeking in my room being like, "Do you want me to help you fold your clothes?" And it's actually one of the most... Because my space feels so much better when my clothes are actually folded and put away. I know I'm going to feel good once it's done. But I just really cannot-
Erica: And to be done.
Benji Hart: And it's definitely been worse during the pandemic. Something about the pandemic has made it 10 times harder, and it was already hard. So I know that's love. I know that's love. Because when my roommate does it for me, I'm like, "Oh thank you. This is such a special gift actually."
Erica: Oh, okay. So if there were Olympics for regular ass activities, what would you go gold in?
Benji Hart: If there were Olympics for regular ass activities, I would go gold in... And Black people always think that this is a dangerous thing to say. And I say it when I say it. I would go gold in mac and cheese.
Erica: I knew it was going to either be mac and cheese or potato salad.
Kenrya: Oh, Benji's cocky.
Benji Hart: I make gold medal mac and cheese. And every time I say it, somebody going to say, "Now you hope you know..." I'm like, "Yeah, I know. I said what I said. This is gold, five-star mac and cheese over here. Let's go toe to toe."
Erica: Yes. Okay.
Kenrya: Wait, Erica, what would you gold in?
Erica: Cleaning. House cleaning. Cleaning my house.
Benji Hart: Oh, I would never say that. I give you so much respect.
Erica: Making the bed, doing dishes, all that shit.
Kenrya: I've always been a person that makes my bed right before I get in it. That's just because I don't like my sheets to be messed up when I... First of all, there are studies that say that that's actually healthier because all the sweat dries up and so bacteria can't proliferate in your sheets.
Erica: Well, so what I do is I make my bed, especially because I've been and sick and sweating. So I make my bed in a very particular way when I've been sweating. Yeah, you got to fold... You going to walk in my bedroom and it's going to look nice, no matter what's going on.
Kenrya: No. I straighten my shit before I get in the bed.
Erica: What about you?
Benji Hart: I love this question.
Kenrya: Yeah, it's a great question. Writing interview questions. It's all I fucking do.
Erica: No bitch. Giving advice. Giving advice. Kenrya give the best advice.
Kenrya: Thank you.
Erica: She gives good advice, but she asks you the question that you need to think about in order to...
Kenrya: [crosstalk 01:00:46]
Erica: Yeah. So, yeah.
Kenrya: I'll take that. I receive it. I appreciate you.
Erica: Best friending. You'd go gold in best friending.
Benji Hart: I love it.
Kenrya: I feel so loved.
Benji Hart: My good friend, Kemi Alabi, who y'all should definitely have on this show, is a Black African American and Nigerian nonbinary poet. And their gold medal, I'm just going share their gold medal skill. They are so good at helping other people realize what they're trying to do with a piece of work. And it's exactly like what you had said, that they just know the exact right question to ask you to help you answer what something is trying to do. They just know so quickly and concisely a pointed question to ask you, that then for you totally clarifies like, "Oh, this is what this poem is trying to do," or, "This is where this piece is trying to go." And I've just never met another artist with that skill that they can actually help other people figure out what they are trying to do with the piece that they're making.
Erica: Yeah that's dope.
Benji Hart: And it's just such a special superpower.
Kenrya: Wow. Word. So what's next for you? I know you said you think you're nearing completion on World After This One. Is that what's coming up next? Or what else you got going on in the works?
Benji Hart: Knock on wood, that is definitely... It's been a labor of love and it's also been in the incubator for a long time. So I actually am excited to share it with more people, and more Black people, especially. And so we'll see what happens in 2022, but I'm optimistic about some of the prospects. So stay posted.
Kenrya: Yes. And the best way for folks to stay posted is to one go to your site, which is BenjiHart.com. That's B E N J I H A R T dot com. And then can you tell folks where else they can find you online?
Benji Hart: Yes. Subscribe to the newsletter on my website and you'll get a monthly update on everything that's going on and links to things and all of that. So that's the best way to stay updated on sort of my work life, my freelance life. But you can also hit me up on Twitter at R A D F A G G, RadFagg, and on Instagram at BenjiFemini, B E N J I F E M I N I.
Kenrya: Are you a Gemini?
Erica: Are you a Gemini?
Benji Hart: I am a very proud Gemini.
Erica: Yes. What's your birthday?
Benji Hart: May 26th.
Kenrya: Isn't that-
Erica: I'm May 27.
Benji Hart: May Geminis. This is a Gemini space, so we can talk about things internally that we can't talk about externally, because the Geminis in general get there's...
Erica: We get it bad.
Benji Hart: I tell people anti-Gemininess and anti-Blackness are linked.
Erica: It is. It is.
Benji Hart: It's systemic. But since we're not in mixed company right now, we can keep it real. The May Geminis are more turned down than the June Geminis. I do feel like-
Erica: Oh, June Geminis are-
Kenrya: My child is a June Gemini.
Benji Hart: Are they chaotic?
Kenrya: Yes. In the best way, but yes.
Erica: Her daughter is fucking chaos in a tiny person. As I was helping them fold clothes, Kenrya has this bin of fancy clothes. So I pull out this dress and it's silver, and it's got all this fucking tulle and like a rainbow. And I said, "Oh, this was in a fancy dress pile." She said, "No, that's an everyday dress." I said, "See, that fucking chaotic ass June Gemini energy."
Benji Hart: June Gemini energy. Big. I love it.
Kenrya: Yeah. Yeah. I am non-Gemini. I am an Aries.
Erica: And I say I don't ever have to hold a grudge because Kenrya's got them all.
Kenrya: I got you. All day.
Benji Hart: I got you. And that's a good Judy. That's very important best friend energy.
Benji Hart: I see it. I do see it.
Erica: Yep. She be like, "Fuck that bitch."
Kenrya: You don't even got to tell me why. Fuck that bitch, and it's fuck that bitch forever, until you tell me otherwise.
Erica: Not at all. And it still take her a while to warm back up.
Kenrya: But I get there. I'm loyal.
Erica: Yeah. You are. [crosstalk 01:05:35], and I appreciate it.
Benji Hart: I give you the chance to redeem yourself, but I'm loyal. So it's going to take extra work with me. That's the good Judy. That's a good Judy.
Kenrya: Yo, I had so much fun.
Erica: You're the best.
Benji Hart: I really did too. Thank y'all so much for including me. And thank y'all so much for welcoming me into your space. I have loved being here.
Erica: Okay. So when you're in DC or I'm in Chicago.
Benji Hart: We're ki-ing. We are ki-ing.
Erica: But I also need some macaroni and cheese.
Benji Hart: Easy peasy lemon squeezey. I got you. I'll throw down. I'll go down in DC. I'll be like, "Where you at? Let's go to the grocery store. Let's do it."
Kenrya: I need you to know that we have had guests in our home after having these conversations and that we are so serious.
Benji Hart: Oh, I would love to. A, I would love to key in real life because y'all are amazing. And B, I will bring the mac and cheese. No joke. Absolutely. Absolutely.
Erica: I love it. That's all. That's all.
Kenrya: Well, thank all of y'all.
Erica: I'll fry some chicken.
Benji Hart: Sounds great.
Kenrya: I'm sorry. I know that y'all are all jealous because none of y'all are going to-
Erica: Kenrya's vegan.
Kenrya: Yeah. I'm not going to be eating any of that food, but that's fine. There will be other things for me to eat. I will contribute.
Erica: That's fine.
Kenrya: None of all are going to get any, but that is okay because y'all got to enjoy this conversation. Thank y'all for joining us this week. And that's it. We'll be back next week. Y'all take care.
Benji Hart: Thank y'all.
Kenrya: This episode was produced by us, Kenrya and Erica, and edited by B'Lystic. The theme music is from Brazy. Hit subscribe right now in your favorite podcast app and at YouTube.com/TheTurnOnPodcast, so you'll never miss an episode.
Erica: Then follow us on Twitter @TheTurnOnPod and Instagram @TheTurnOnPodcast. And you can find links to books, transcripts, guest info, what's turning us on, and other fun stuff at TheTurnOnPodcast.com.
Kenrya: And don't forget to email us at TheTurnOnPodcast@gmail.com with your book recommendations and your pressing sex-and related questions.
Erica: And you can support the show by leaving us a five-star review, buying some merch or becoming a patron of the show. Just head to TheTurnOnPodcast.com to make that happen.
Kenrya: Thanks for listening and we'll see you soon. Holla.
The Turn On
The Turn On is a podcast for Black people who want to get off. To open their minds. To learn. To be part of a community. To show that we love and fuck too, and it doesn't have to be political or scandalous or dirty. Unless we want it to be.